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Posted March 22, 2010

Study finds Latinos who leave their churches
are choosing no faith

By Patricia Zapor
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- A new analysis of religious identification data finds that contrary to popular belief, U.S. Latinos are not leaving behind Catholicism for Protestant churches, but instead are becoming more secularized, affiliating themselves with no faith at all.

A study released March 16 by the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture at Trinity College, a secular liberal arts school in Hartford, Conn., reported that although Latinos remain predominantly Catholic, those who have left the church since 1990 have shifted more than expected toward secularism as they become more Americanized.

It also reported on shifts of the Latino population away from the Northeast and to Southern states, and from urban to suburban communities, among other information.

The study compared changes in the Latino population's responses to questions about faith between 1990 and 2008.The analysis of the American Religious Identification Survey of 2008 echoes many of the findings of previous studies of Latinos and their faith, such as that the influx of Latino immigrants continues to be a factor in maintaining the size of the Catholic population in the United States.

"Over the 18-year period, the influx of 9 million Latino Catholics accounted for most of the 11 million additions to the U.S. Catholic population and, as a result, Latinos comprised 32 percent of all U.S. Catholics in 2008 compared to 20 percent in 1990," it said. Among Latinos, 66 percent in 1990 said they were Catholic, compared to 60 percent in 2008.

The study by Juhem Navarro-Rivera, a research fellow, and professors Barry Kosmin and Ariela Keysar noted that just as in the general U.S. population, Latinos became less identified with Christianity between 1990 and 2008, down from 91 percent to 82 percent. Those who said they identify with no faith grew from 6 percent in 1990 to 12 percent in 2008, they found.

While some faiths, particularly Jehovah's Witnesses and Seventh-day Adventists, nearly tripled in the number of Latino adherents, and Pentecostals doubled in number, the percentage of Latinos who belong to those faiths declined.

Referring to the percentage of Latinos who belong to a particular faith as "market share," the study noted that the ratio of Catholics to other Christians remained the same over the 18-year period.

"The widespread assumption that non-Catholic Christian traditions are gaining ground among U.S. Latinos is not supported," it said. "Obviously this ratio is affected by the preferences of new immigrants, who remain overwhelmingly Catholic. Other non-Christian religions, comprising a wide range of groups, also lost market share."

The report also found that a significantly larger portion of Latinos were living in suburban areas in 2008 than in 1990. The percentage of Latinos in urban areas declined from 76 percent to 70 percent, while the percentage in suburban settings increased from 12 percent to 20 percent. The percentage living in rural areas changed only slightly, from 12 percent in 1990 to 10 percent in 2008.

Taking into account their increased numbers in the population, in real numbers that translated to an increase in suburban Latinos from nearly 1.8 million in 1990 to more than 6 million in 2008.

The report was based on 2008 telephone interviews of 54,461 adults, 3,169 of whom identified themselves as Hispanic. The 1990 data came from a sample of 113,713 adults, of whom 4,868 identified themselves as Hispanic. The margin of error for the Hispanic sample of the study is plus or minus 1.7 percent.